Restaurant critics make me cringe. Their industry produces too many individuals for whom food ceases to excite, who derive a singular pleasure from ripping apart every aspiring chef they meet. Am I to join the ranks of those whose dullish palates yield no pleasure? It offends me that critics could be so dismissive of the honest efforts of innovative chefs with real passions for feeding customers. Put aside theory, mark me a hedonist and ask yourselves — does food make you happy? That crackle of warm pain au levain as you tear into the crust with your bare hands? There’s something so innocent, so beautiful about food that I find worth defending against those who would deprive me of that. And so, I write about chefs whose small efforts have given us the greatest pleasure.
This is a shockingly difficult task to accomplish in a culture that doesn’t make much room for small efforts. Our society wants massive revolution and big change, and food culture is no exception. Alice Waters, the quiet revolutionary from Berkeley, is revered by many, including myself, as the Mother Theresa of America’s slow food movement. Let’s face it, the woman has changed the way we think about food! Still, nonbelievers argue that Waters could’ve done more to generate momentum for her movement.
Unfortunately, these critics aren’t just a few misanthropes — Waters’ message is assailed in the mainstream media as well. The New York Times’ recent feature about Waters criticized her naivete. Ruth Reichl, editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, describes Waters as “relentless,” but goes on to say that this often blinds her to the bigger picture — she operates in what Reichl calls a “lovely, minor way.”
But the notion that Alice Waters hasn’t maximized her potential for popular attention or political clout seems out of step with her message. I applaud Waters for keeping her message about food simple but meaningful. It is inspiring to see her respond, with a quiet strength, to those who would casually dismiss her efforts.
“I think it’s important to say and do what I can without compromising how I’m doing that. People think that to get into the mind of the public you have to get into the media. I don’t want the media to become the message,” Waters said when I spoke with her last weekend. “I’m being as strong-minded as I can be. I don’t want to be negative or criticize what is happening around me. I want to educate people about what is going on.”
We can ask hard questions about more practical aspects of Waters’ Slow Food initiative and her Edible Schoolyard program. But a tendency to cast Waters in a purely political light does a grave disservice to the woman who has inspired us to think differently about food in our lives. Waters respects the work of academics like Kelly Brownell to bring a political approach to the way we think about food. She herself declines to do the same. But can we honestly blame her for that?
Alice Waters’ respect for food is much more simple than people suppose. It isn’t about monopolizing the media or mass mobilization. Good food is about what’s closest to you — gathering with friends, reconnecting with nature and supporting the community. “All of these needs have been fulfilled for me,” Waters says of the aesthetic that food brings into her life. I wonder, has our culture — no longer satisfied by life’s simple pleasures, except maybe sex — grown far too cynical to believe her?
Waters’ revolution is really an attempt to bring us back to the basics — to small towns and local communities where America once shared a common appreciation for good food. I don’t think there is any reason to believe that what Waters did for the community in Berkeley cannot be achieved right here in New Haven. Start buying and cooking with local and fresh ingredients. Keep food pure and tasty. “You’re nine-tenths of the way there if you stick to those principles,” Waters said. “You can never cook too simply. People think that you have to make what people cannot make for themselves, but that’s simply not true.”
It’s no secret that Waters herself has a special love for food in New Haven. Like myself, Waters believes that New Haven is a perfect place to cultivate a small revolution, full of innovative people willing to take bold new risks with food. Back when her daughter attended the university in 2001, she approached President Levin with an idea to bring sustainable and local produce into the dining halls: this marked the beginning of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. And her romance with the Elm City is far from over — Alice Waters would someday like to return to New Haven to open up her own bakery, with a peace garden in back.
To address the pioneering chefs and restaurant owners of New Haven — don’t be afraid to cultivate a small revolution. There’s a tendency to think that something small, something simple cannot amount to anything. But nothing’s wrong with starting small. Instead of forcing a whole lot of complex flavors on your diners, allow them to form their own opinions about the food. Alice Waters reminds us that true beauty can come from something as simple as a piece of garlic toast and a green salad.
“Give people an ability to connect with food in a wonderful way,” Waters proclaims, “and they’ll come back again and again.”
Justin Lo is keeping it simple.